Breaking up is hard to do

I have broken up with Hamlet on more than one occasion. The first time was in the Spring. It’s so lovely out, I thought, and this play is so tragic. Let’s read something more cheerful. We did. But the breakup didn’t take – Hamlet and I tried again a semester later. It didn’t last. It’s winter, I thought, and everyone dies in this play. Let’s read something more current. So I left him again. This time I was sure we were over. We stayed apart for a couple of years.

Times changed. In the English office, we teachers discussed whether or not we should teach Shakespeare every year of high school. I maintained that, while I love Shakespeare, he is over-represented in our curriculum. Some of us argued that great literature continues to expand and wondered about the place of a long-dead English guy in our students’ world. Others insisted that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of literature. We didn’t reach a conclusion – how could we? – but Hamlet and I stayed broken up. Each semester I asked students if they thought we should get back together; every time the nos far outweighed the yesses.

Then, during the pandemic online learning, a few students picked Hamlet for their choice unit, so I got to spend some time with him again. I was… intrigued both by the on-line options and by the students’ reactions to the play. They loved it – and Hamlet was on my mind again. Last semester we were in a weird pandemic limbo so I didn’t even think about Hamlet, but this semester… well, we had enough time for one more unit before the end of the year and I offered options. Hamlet was one of them – but I also offered a focus on social media, a “banned book” book club, a non-fiction children’s book study. They chose Hamlet.

I was wary – our class includes students from all over the world, some of whom are still learning English. (Honestly, in many ways we are *all* still learning English – but that’s another post.) They have plans to study computer science, engineering, medicine, economics, political science and more. I don’t think any of them plan to study Literature. And look, I know why I find Hamlet attractive, but I was unsure that he was the right fit for them. Still, it’s what they chose.

So, cautiously, I introduced them. We got our bearings and set some goals for our time together – boundaries, if you will: no, we will not read every word; yes, we will actually say the words on the page; yes, we can use No Fear Shakespeare and the internet; no, we will not stay in our seats. Then, tentatively, I invited Hamlet back into the classroom.

Look, I said, the play starts with a question – but the wrong person is asking it. Soon, students were patrolling the ramparts and trying to decide if they believed in ghosts. By Tuesday, someone gave a low whistle when Claudius taunted Hamlet, “’tis unmanly grief”. That’s HARSH, Miss. Another student replied, Well, he is behaving like a jerk. A student who has a spare during our period has started attending the class, just to read along. Today, Hamlet compared his dead father to a sun god and thought about killing himself because it was, frankly, all too much. He’s so *dramatic* sighed one student. I mean, it is kind of a terrible situation, but still. A lively discussion broke out about Hamlet’s response to all this – which made it that much worse when Horatio showed up and said, um, so, about your dad… “methinks I saw him yesternight.” One student shook her head gravely and said, Oh, this is NOT going to go well.

Tomorrow we will meet Ophelia. And I probably shouldn’t tell her, but I think I just got back together with Hamlet. Again.

Many thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly space for blogging.

6 thoughts on “Breaking up is hard to do

  1. To re-read, or to not re-read? That is always the question. I enjoyed reading your students responses. It’s a great feeling when you see them really get into it.

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  2. I loved this post. And you hit the nail on the head with how dramatic (read: melodramatic) the characters can be. Part of me wonders if that’s some of the charm with high school. Of all the periods of development through grown-up-ness, I feel like high school is the most fraught with the identity drama.
    And this line: “Honestly, in many ways we are *all* still learning English – but that’s another post.” YES! And I hope you *do* post about that!

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  3. I read only one Shakespeare play in high school and it was Hamlet. I’ve always wished for more opportunities to read and discuss the other plays. I could do it on my own…but…

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  4. I love this. My former school (the principal) under the direction of anti black racism and anti colonialism has banned Shakespeare. They also claim it is because kids didn’t like it. I have so many issues with this. I agree with you in that contemporary drama also needs a place in our curriculum, but I still love Will. And as a drama teachers as well there is so much depth and understanding of the human condition. We are selling our students short if we don’t expose them to this, and don’t trust them to find those truths.

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